Marijuana reform advocates have been looking for signs that an incoming president-elect Joe Biden will make good on his campaign pledge to pursue cannabis policy changes since the former vice president has been projected to win the election. But they didn’t get any such sign in a new racial equity plan his transition team has put forward.
While Biden emphasized on the campaign trail that cannabis decriminalization and expungements would be part of his racial justice agenda, the plan released over the weekend omits any specific mention of marijuana reform.
Many of the proposals are broadly described, however, and it’s possible that a policy like decriminalization could be folded into broader commitments to eliminate “racial disparities and ensuring fair sentences,” for example.
In any case, there’s been some skepticism on the part of advocates that Biden’s stated support for cannabis reform will be matched with administrative action. And although he and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris have repeatedly promised to follow through with decriminalization and expungements if elected, that issue did not make the cut in the new “commitment to uplifting Black and Brown communities.”
The page says Biden is working to “strengthen America’s commitment to justice, and reform our criminal justice system” and lays out other specific promises that were often mentioned on the campaign trail alongside marijuana reform, such as a ban on police chokeholds and creating a national oversight commission to track law enforcement abuses. But cannabis reform is nowhere to be found in the transition team document.
In contrast, a still-live page on Biden’s separate campaign site for his “Plan for Black America” that he rolled out while running for president, includes the pledge to “decriminalize the use of cannabis and automatically expunge all prior cannabis use convictions.”
Lawmakers and advocates frequently cite cannabis reform as a key racial justice measure, pointing out that Black people are significantly more likely to be arrested over marijuana offenses despite the fact that white people consume cannabis at a comparable rate.
A Biden campaign spokesman, when contacted by Marijuana Moment about the omission of the cannabis pledge from the new site, at first argued that it was because the document is focused on economic equity issues. But when it was pointed out that the page also includes several criminal justice-focused proposals such as stopping the “transfer of weapons of war to police forces” and the other related measures, he replied that the omission of marijuana reform didn’t signal a deprioritization of the issue.
“Nothing has changed,” he said, adding that other priorities of the incoming administration, such as LGBT rights, were also not specifically featured in the “Build Back Better” transition site.
We are preparing to lead on Day One, ensuring the Biden-Harris administration is able to take on the most urgent challenges we face: protecting and preserving our nation's health, renewing our opportunity to succeed, advancing racial equity, and fighting the climate crisis.
— Biden-Harris Presidential Transition (@Transition46) November 8, 2020
Part of advocates’ skepticism about follow through on the issue is related to the fact that Biden played a key role in advancing punitive anti-drug legislation during his time in the Senate and has declined to embrace adult-use legalization despite supermajority support among voters in his own party.
But while the racial equity page doesn’t seem to signal a sense of urgency when it comes to marijuana reform, many advocates are still optimistic that the Biden-Harris election bodes well for the issue overall.
Beyond decriminalization and expungements, Biden favors medical cannabis legalization, modestly rescheduling marijuana under federal law and letting states set their own policies without federal intervention. Harris is the main Senate sponsor of a bill to federally deschedule cannabis, though she has her own history of previously opposing reform.
“To truly achieve racial equity in marijuana policy, President-elect Biden must commit to removing marijuana from the list of federally controlled substances and repairing harms felt by individuals impacted by this country’s racist drug war,” Martiza Perez, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment. “Anything less than that is unacceptable and falls short.”
Biden could accomplish that by supporting Harris’s Marijuana Opportunities, Reinvestment and Expungements (MORE) Act to legalize marijuana at the federal level and implement a series of social justice policies. But he’s so far shown no inclination to do so.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) announced on Monday that the chamber will hold a floor vote on the bill, which also contains provisions to fund programs to repair some of the harms of the war on drugs, next month. The House was initially expected to do so in September, but it was ultimately postponed after certain centrist Democrats argued the optics of passing the bill would be bad for them before approving another coronavirus relief package.
“Our hope is that as vice president, Senator Harris will continue to champion the MORE Act as she did in the Senate as the bill’s lead sponsor,” Perez said. “This bill would deschedule marijuana at the federal level and provide a path for the resentencing and expungement of marijuana convictions in addition to other social justice components.”
For her part, Harris has indicated that she wouldn’t be proactively pushing Biden to adopt a pro-legalization stance. She did say last month that she has a “deal” with Biden to candidly share her perspective on a range of progressive policies he currently opposes, however, and that includes legalizing cannabis.
The senator also said that month that the administration would have “a commitment to decriminalizing marijuana and expunging the records of people who have been convicted of marijuana offenses.”
That promise is not featured on the transition team’s new racial equity page, however. It states more generally that we “can and must reduce the number of people incarcerated in this country while also reducing crime,” without specifically recognizing the role of the drug war in increasing incarceration rates nationwide.
The page also fails to note another drug policy reform position Biden holds but which advocates are generally opposed to: diverting people away from incarceration for drug possession and forcing them to enroll treatment programs. While reformers don’t want people to go to jail for drugs, of course, they are concerned that mandating treatment through drug courts inappropriately continues to involve the criminal justice system in responding to a health issue.
The work ahead in the next 73 days will be the foundation for an administration that puts the health, safety, and character of our communities first.
— Biden-Harris Presidential Transition (@Transition46) November 8, 2020
Meanwhile, advocates have noticed that Biden and Harris haven’t mentioned the cannabis-related campaign pledges since Election Day.
“During the campaign, President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris both pledged to prioritize reforms to our nation’s cannabis policy,” NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri told Marijuana Moment. “They outlined plans that had the intention of ending marijuana possession arrests and getting the federal government off of the backs of states who wish to end their failed prohibitions.”
“Given that marijuana reform efforts were approved in every state they were on the ballot this election, and received more votes than Joe Biden in all of those states, the Biden-Harris administration needs to acknowledge the overwhelming public support these reforms have and move to rapidly champion change at the federal level,” he said. “The results from election night show that we have a mandate from the American people and we intend to make sure that elected officials abide by it.”
Arrests for drug sales, manufacturing and possession amounted to 1,558,862 in 2019—approximately 15 percent of all busts reported to FBI from local and state law enforcement agencies. That’s one new drug case every 20 seconds.
“Our criminal justice system cannot be just unless we root out the racial, gender, and income-based disparities in the system,” the Biden-Harris transition site says. “The system must be focused on redemption and rehabilitation.”
Shortly after becoming the party’s 2020 nominee, the former vice president’s ongoing opposition to recreational legalization is suspected of being at least partly behind the Democratic National Committee platform committee’s vote against adding the reform as a 2020 party plank in July.
So it may be incumbent upon Congress to advance broad legalization after he takes office. And the likelihood of that happening will hinge largely on the makeup of the Senate, which is yet to be determined.
Should Democrats reclaim control of the Senate and keep the House, the chance of advancing reform will be significantly increased. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), the current top Democrat in the chamber, who would be expected to be installed as the majority leader come January if the party wins enough of the outstanding races, said last month that he will put his own descheduling bill “in play” and that “I think we’ll have a good chance to pass it.”
With a Democratic-controlled Senate and the party still in control of the House, it stands to reason that cannabis reform would move in the 117th Congress, even if the pace of that reform and the administration’s role in promoting it remain uncertain.
That said, if Republicans keep their hold on the Senate, that could seriously hamper reform efforts. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is an adamant opponent of loosening laws on marijuana, all but ensuring that reform bills would not stand a chance in his chamber even as he has championed hemp legalization. Even modest House-passed legislation focused on banking access for cannabis businesses never received a vote.
“President-elect Biden has both the opportunity and responsibility to call upon lawmakers to advance comprehensive legislation to reform our country’s failed marijuana policies,” Steve Hawkins, executive director at the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment. “While Americans are divided among many issues, legalization is one issue that brings people across the country together. Voters in red states and blue states alike have shown that they support legalization and it’s time for the president and Congress to take real action.”
Outside of Congress, Biden could also make moves to advance cannabis reform administratively.
For example, he could reinstate a version of the Obama-era Justice Department memo that directed federal prosecutors to generally not interfere with state marijuana laws, which was rescinded by the Trump administration in 2018. It is also within the power of the executive branch to reschedule marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act. Biden has pledged to make a move to Schedule II, though that would not achieve many of the changes advocates seek.
The president has the unilateral authority to grant acts of clemency, including pardons and commutations, to people who have been convicted of federal marijuana or other drug offenses. He also gets to appoint an attorney general, drug czar and other officials who will make decisions on how the federal government handles the issue—though many of those officials will be subject to Senate confirmation.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) told Marijuana Moment in August that “the Biden administration and a Biden Department of Justice would be a constructive player” in advancing legalization.
Marijuana Legalization Could Curb Opioid Crisis In West Virginia, Governor Says
If West Virginia lawmakers send a bill to legalize marijuana to his desk, he will sign it, Gov. Jim Justice (R) said on Tuesday.
While he might not be personally in favor of adult-use legalization, he said in response to a question during a town hall event that he’s heard from members of the medical community who feel that regulating cannabis sales could actually reduce “drug-type problems” like the opioid overdose epidemic, which has hit his state especially hard.
“I’ll just tell it like it is, I’m not educated enough to make a really good assessment as of yet,” he said. “But I can tell you just this: I do believe that that is coming, and the wave is coming across all of our states, and as that wave comes, if our House Republicans and Democrats and Senate Republicans and Democrats would get behind that effort from a standpoint of legalization of recreational marijuana and they would be supportive of that, I would too.”
Watch the governor respond to the marijuana legalization question below:
The governor’s point about the broad public health impacts of legalization is substantiated in a growing body of scientific literature that’s found that increasing legal access to cannabis—which has been shown to effectively treat conditions such as chronic pain with minimal side effects—leads to fewer opioid prescriptions and overdose deaths.
Tuesday’s town hall wasn’t specifically about marijuana, however; rather, it centered on the state’s push to eliminate the income tax. On that note, House Majority Whip Paul Espinosa (R) recently circulated an internal poll among Republican lawmakers, inquiring about what kind of policies—including marijuana legalization—they’d be willing to support to make up revenue for the state as part of the plan to gut the income tax.
When asked about legalization as a means to raise tax revenue that could theoretically be used to get ride of the income tax, Justice said he’s principally opposed to broad reform but “I’m weakening on that position” because while his instinct is to reject regulating marijuana amid the state’s drug crisis, the medical community has shifted his perspective.
Experts “tell me that really and truly the legalizing of marijuana in certain areas or certain states that have that, from a recreational standpoint, have lowered their drug-type problems,” he said.
“If we could bucket the proceeds [from cannabis tax revenue] and use them in a way, just like this personal income tax reduction…in a really beneficial way for all our people,” he would be supportive of that.
Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 700 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.
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West Virginia approved medical cannabis legalization in 2017, which Justice signed into law, and patients were just recently approved to start registering for the program. That said, the state must still partner with a testing laboratory before marijuana products are made available.
Two Democratic candidates who lost their bids for West Virginia House seats last year had pledged to introduce legislation to legalize marijuana in the state if they were elected.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Mississippi House Replaces Senate’s Alternate Medical Marijuana Program With What Voters Originally Approved
“The people have spoken, with a constitutional amendment about medical marijuana, and that bill went against the spirit of what the people decided.”
By Geoff Pender, Mississippi Today
A House panel on Tuesday gutted a Senate medical marijuana proposal and inserted the medical marijuana language voters passed as a constitutional amendment in November.
“I’m interested in seeing that bill die—I think it just did die,” said Rep. Robert Johnson III, House minority leader. “The people have spoken, with a constitutional amendment about medical marijuana, and that bill went against the spirit of what the people decided.”
Johnson made those statements about Senate Bill 2765 on Tuesday afternoon, when it appeared the bill had died, with no Ways and Means Committee meeting called on the floor for the afternoon to take the bill up. Later, Ways and Means had a meeting and took the bill up, then struck the Senate language and inserted Initiative 65. It now goes to the full House and if passed, back to the Senate in its amended form.
Rep. Joel Bomgar, R-Madison, who helped lead, and fund, the successful citizen initiative to enshrine medical marijuana use in the state constitution, offered the amendment to replace the Senate bill language with Initiative 65’s language.
Senate Bill 2765 was originally a legislative alternative to the medical marijuana program voters overwhelmingly approved in November with Ballot Initiative 65, which is now being challenged in the state Supreme Court. The bill passed the Senate only after much wrangling and a “do-over” vote in the wee hours of the morning in mid-February. It was initially drafted to create its own medical marijuana program, regardless of whether the court upholds the voter-passed program. But it was amended during heated Senate debate to take effect only if the courts strike down the voter-passed program.
The legislative move had many Initiative 65 supporters crying foul, claiming the Legislature was trying to usurp the will of the voters. After lawmakers failed for years to approve use of medical marijuana despite a groundswell of public support, voters took matters in hand in November with Initiative 65.
Jessica Rice, director of the Mississippi Cannabis Trade Association was among many watching the legislative alternative marijuana bill with skepticism and trepidation. She questioned whether lawmakers were truly trying to provide a backstop in case courts strike down Initiative 65. If so, she said, they would codify Initiative 65 — as the House panel did — not come up with a proposal with higher taxes and more or different regulations as in the Senate version.
“Our position is that the people have already had an option to vote on a legislative created program, and they chose not to,” Rice said last week. “Just because this is up before the Supreme Court does not give the Legislature a second bite at the apple … I think this is about control — they want to be able to be in control of the program, but people have already rejected that.”
But many state leaders and lawmakers had lamented that Initiative 65 was drafted to favor the marijuana industry and is just short of legalized recreational use. It puts the Mississippi State Department of Health in charge of the program, with no oversight by elected officials. It also prevents standard taxation of the marijuana, and any fees collected by the health department can only be used to run and expand the marijuana program, not go into state taxpayer coffers. The measure allows little regulation by local governments, no limits on the number of dispensaries and otherwise leaves many specifics … unspecified.
The Senate proposal would have taxed medical marijuana, with a 4 percent excise at cultivation, and with a 7 percent sales tax patients would pay, which was originally 10 percent in earlier drafts of the bill. Most of the taxes collected would have gone to education, including early learning and college scholarships. And the Departments of Agriculture and Revenue would be in charge.
The bill also would have imposed large licensing fees on growers and dispensary shop owners. Originally, those fees would have been $100,000 for growers and $20,000 for dispensaries. Those were reduced to $15,000 and $5,000, respectively, on Thursday night. Other changes were made in an effort to assuage those who believed such fees would keep small businesses and farms out of the game.
The bill barely gained the three-fifths vote it needed to pass the Senate. It faced a Tuesday deadline for the Ways and Means Committee to pass it on to the full House. Ways and Means Chairman Trey Lamar had said late Tuesday he was still undecided on what to do with the bill.
He noted the Ways and Means meeting late Tuesday was not announced on the House floor, as is standard procedure.
“No, it wasn’t announced,” Lamar said. “We just added it to the schedule. I know that’s not the usual way we do it, but I wasn’t there to announce it on the floor.”
This left many believing the bill had died on deadline without a vote Tuesday—apparently, including House Speaker Philip Gunn.
Gunn said: “The issue, or the challenge here is that the people voted on it in November, and they spoke pretty strongly… I know there is a lawsuit, but that can be dealt with later if we need to. If the Supreme Court throws out that vote, then the Legislature can come back and deal with it. If they uphold it, well then I don’t know what the Legislature would have to do with it then.”
Mexican Lawmakers To Vote On Marijuana Legalization Next Week
A long-awaited floor vote on a proposal to legalize marijuana in Mexico is being scheduled in the Chamber of Deputies for next week, a move that comes months after the Senate approved the reform.
That said, lawmakers say there is still no formal revised bill for deputies to take up, and it will have to move through the committee process before being potentially returned to the Senate.
Martha Tagle Martínez, a member of the chamber’s Health Committee, said on Tuesday that several groups have reached out to her after receiving what appeared to be a draft legislation to regulate cannabis. She clarified that “there is still no formal or definitive document.”
The Political Coordination Board, which is established by party leaders to reach consensus on legislative issues, has set floor action for March 9. “But there is still no draft opinion,” Martínez said. When there is a bill, it will go to the Health and Justice Committees.
Adicionalmente, la JUCOPO de la @Mx_Diputados ha programado tener la discusión sobre la minuta del senado en materia de #Cannabis para el próximo 9 de marzo, pero aún no hay proyecto de dictamen. Cuando éste circule se deberá convocar a las comisiones unidas de salud y justicia.
— Martha Tagle (@MarthaTagle) March 2, 2021
Those panels will “analyze, discuss, modify and approve the draft opinion” before sending it to the floor.
While it remains to be seen what changes will be made from the Senate version, Martínez said that the current bill as approved in the other chamber does not fulfill the requirements of the Supreme Court, which deemed the prohibition on personal possession and cultivation of marijuana unconstitutional in a 2018 ruling. Lawmakers have since been tasked with ending criminalization, but they’ve repeatedly pushed back deadlines to enact the policy change.
Hasta ahora, ni la minuta del senado, ni observaciones hechas por el gobierno, atienden la resolución de la @SCJN para garantizar los DDHH y el libre desarrollo de la personalidad de usuarios de #Cannabis.
Es nuestra responsabilidad de @Mx_Diputados centrar la discusión en ello.
— Martha Tagle (@MarthaTagle) March 2, 2021
Now the legislature has until the end of April to legalize cannabis nationwide, and it seems next week’s action will set the stage for Congress to make good on its obligation.
In the meantime, the Health Committee already held a preliminary discussion on the issue last month.
EN VIVO / Reunión de Junta Directiva de la Comisión de Salud https://t.co/fToNXQd19B
— Cámara de Diputados (@Mx_Diputados) February 24, 2021
Members of the panel said they wanted to hold four sessions to debate the legislation, but its president, Carmen Medel Palma, has yet to convene them and wants to speed up the process, La Jornada reported.
The Justice Committee also met to discuss the matter on Sunday, according to the group Cáñamo México.
Estimadxs integrantes de la Comisión de @Justicia_Dip, ¿serían tan amables de informarnos lo sucedido en su Reunión Extraordinaria de la Junta Directiva sobre la dictaminación de la Ley Federal para la Regulación del Cannabis sucedida hoy a las 17 horas? @Mx_Diputados #Cannabis
— Cáñamo México (@canamo_mexico) March 2, 2021
The two panels were initially expected to send a revised legalization proposal to the floor last month, but that didn’t happen.
➡️ Informa la presidenta de la Comisión de Salud que se prevé que esta semana se convoque a reunión de comisiones unidas para discutir y votar el dictamen a la minuta en materia de regulación de cannabis. https://t.co/2mBuGsv3kj
— Cámara de Diputados (@Mx_Diputados) February 23, 2021
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, for his part, said in December that a vote on legalization legislation was delayed due to minor “mistakes” in the proposal.
He said “there was no time to conduct a review” in the legislature before the prior December 15 Supreme Court deadline, but he noted that issues that need to be resolved are “matters of form” and “not of substance.”
The Senate passed the legalization bill in November and transmitted it to the Chamber of Deputies. Several committees took up the bill, with the Human Rights and Budget and Public Account Committees representing one panel that considered and advanced it just before the the court granted lawmakers’ latest deadline extension request.
While advocates are eager for lawmakers to formally end prohibition, they hoped the delay would give them more time to try to convince the legislature to address their concerns about certain provisions of the current bill, namely the limited nature of its social equity components and strict penalties for violating rules.
In response to unofficial drafts of the legalization measure that were obtained by advocacy groups, Regulación Por La Paz said the proposals “give way to a regulation designed as a way for the great national and international capital, at the cost of the criminalization of users” and that the draft legislation “prioritizes the interests of the industry over rights and needs of the Mexican citizenship.”
⚠ #Comunicado ⚠
Desde #RegulaciónPorLaPaz vemos con preocupación el rumbo que está tomando la discusión en torno a la regulación de #cannabis en la @Mx_Diputados debido a que prioriza los intereses de la industria por encima de los derechos y necesidades de la ciudadanía. pic.twitter.com/zSy3phdNMr
— Regulación Por La Paz (@regulacionxpaz) February 24, 2021
“The worst they propose [is] a registry for self cultivators,” Mariana Sevilla of Regulación Por La Paz told Marijuana Moment, adding that she also concerned about the inclusion of vertical integration for cannabis businesses.
Activists also want to increase the percentage of licenses granted to people harmed by prohibition.
“To avoid the formation of corporate oligopolies and promote a horizontal and inclusive market that encourages dignified participation and fair conditions for communities in vulnerable situations, it is essential to incorporate a perspective of social justice,” Zara Snapp of the Instituto RIA and #RegulacionPorLaPaz wrote in an op-ed coauthored by ReverdeSer Colectivo Coordinator Amaya Ordorika Imaz.
The legalization bill cleared a joint group of Senate committees prior to the full floor vote in that chamber, with some amendments being made after members informally considered and debated the proposal during a virtual hearing.
Members of the Senate’s Justice, Health, and Legislative Studies Committees had approved a prior version of legal cannabis legislation last March, but the coronavirus pandemic delayed consideration of the issue.
In general, the Senate bill would establish a regulated cannabis market, allowing adults 18 and older to purchase and possess up to 28 grams of marijuana and cultivate up to six plants for personal use.
The legislation makes some attempts to mitigate the influence of large marijuana corporations. For example, it states that for the first five years after implementation, at least 40 percent of cannabis business licenses must be granted to those from indigenous, low-income or historically marginalized communities.
The Mexican Institute of Cannabis would be responsible for regulating the market and issuing licenses.
Public consumption of marijuana would be allowed, except in places where tobacco use is prohibited or at mass gatherings where people under 18 could be exposed.
Households where more than one adult lives would be limited to cultivating a maximum of eight plants. The legislation also says people “should not” consume cannabis in homes where there are underaged individuals. Possession of more than 28 grams but fewer than 200 grams would be considered an infraction punishable by a fine but no jail time.
Sen. Julio Ramón Menchaca Salazar of the MORENA party said in April that legalizing cannabis could fill treasury coffers at a time when the economy is recovering from the pandemic.
As lawmakers work to advance the reform legislation, there’s been a more lighthearted push to focus attention on the issue by certain members and activists. That push has mostly involved planting and gifting marijuana.
In September, a top administration official was gifted a cannabis plant by senator on the Senate floor, and she said she’d be making it a part of her personal garden.
A different lawmaker gave the same official, Interior Ministry Secretary Olga Sánchez Cordero, a marijuana joint on the floor of the Chamber of Deputies in 2019.
Cannabis made another appearance in the legislature in August, when Sen. Jesusa Rodríguez of the MORENA party decorated her desk with a marijuana plant.
Drug policy reform advocates have also been cultivating hundreds of marijuana plants in front of the Senate, putting pressure on legislators to make good on their pledge to advance legalization.